THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Untold lives blog

30 January 2013

Catastrophe at the Foreign Office

Judging from the popularity of the recent LOLCats post on the British Library Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts blog, there is an appreciative audience for feline stories.  So here is the sad tale of the bookbinder’s cat.

Our story takes place in the old Foreign Office building in Downing Street in the mid nineteenth century.  There was a passage leading to the bookbinder’s rooms in the basement which had racks used to store large bound volumes of newspapers. One day a volume of The Times was taken off the shelf by the messenger, leaving a vacant space in the rack. When the volume was eventually sent back to the basement for replacement, the unlucky bookbinder’s cat was occupying the vacant space. Unfortunately the cat was not seen and the volume was shelved, trapping the animal in the rack where it died of starvation.

Some time later, staff at the Foreign Office complained of bad smells emanating from this passage but a thorough investigation failed to identify the source. In 1861 the Foreign Office was moved into temporary accommodation to make way for construction of the current building and the heavy newspaper volumes were taken down from the racks. The workmen discovered:

“…the mortal remains of the cat lying on its side, with its black fur still preserved, as if asleep; but the moment the air touched it the black hair arose and vanished, and there lay the skeleton of the cat, covered, apparently, with white parchment stretched tightly over it”.

Cat mummyCat mummy, 332-330 BC. ©De Agostini. Images Online

At the time the incident was deemed so curious that the skeleton of the cat was put into a large red despatch box and sent up to the Foreign Secretary, Lord John Russell, and the members of the Cabinet for their inspection and subsequently kept as a gruesome souvenir. The skeleton of the poor animal was later in the possession of the widow of George Mason, who worked as a messenger for many years in the Foreign Office Library.

Richard Scott Morel
Curator, East India Company Records   Cc-by


Source: Sir Edward Hertslet, Recollections of the Old Foreign Office, (London, 1901), pp. 36-38.

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